What’s in a name? Can you write a book anonymously?

It is the norm to have the writer’s name emblazoned on the cover of a book. Yet, while the opportunity for such public recognition is a career highlight for many people, there are some that don’t want to be recognised at all. And, if that’s the way you want it, it is fine. In fact, there are many, many books which have appeared in this way.

The most common reason for wanting anonymity is when the content is of a sensitive nature. I often speak with would-be authors who have been through harrowing real life experiences and want to share them with others in a bid to perhaps steer them away from falling into the same trap. While the intention to tell their story is a very noble one and often brave too, they do not wish to offend or upset people close to them who may not have been aware of their ordeal. Neither do they wish to alert the perpetrator and risk making a bad situation worse. In this situation, maintaining a cloak of anonymity makes a lot of sense.

An alternative reason for going down the anonymous path is when an established author wants to test the market by trying out a different genre entirely. The view is that by writing under a nom de plume, or no name at all, they won’t risk jeopardising the day job. Or perhaps they want to ‘test’ their skills by publishing without the usual PR fanfare. JK Rowling famously published crime novels under the pseudonym Robert Gabraith in a bid to stay under the radar. In another instance, Stephen King wrote a few books early in his career under the name of Richard Bachman. At the time there was a climate where if you published too often, your work was considered to be subpar because you were obviously writing too fast.

In times long, long past, disguising an author’s true identity was something that seemed particularly pertinent to women. In Jane Austen’s time, it was expected that women, particularly of a certain class, would accept the rather dull credit of ‘A Lady’. Often readers were positively discouraged from imagining that the author was a woman, take George Elliott as an example.

Many authors who start out anonymously are occasionally ‘outed’ or even ‘out’ themselves when a book becomes successful. Years later, for example, we learned that Ellis, Currer and Acton Bell are actually Emily, Charlotte and Anne Bronte. It should also be noted that the chances of being outed are far higher today. Thanks to social media, it is easier to connect the dots and when the juggernaut of a media hunt for someone begins, it is hard to get ahead of it. Witness for example Dr Brook Magnanti who was known by her anonymous pen name Belle de Jour for her blog and subsequent book The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl,before her real name was revealed following a newspaper frenzy.

I would certainly recommend that anyone considering writing anonymously considers the full implications before deciding to do so. Even if you don’t put your own name on the book, the usual rules of libel still apply. In other words, you can’t name and shame people willy nilly, or accuse them of crimes they have not been convicted for. By all means, record your full experiences, but make sure all the protagonists are anonymous too. While you are about it, change the names of the locations detailed in the book. Be wary of anything that can even imply the identity of someone who is being accused of a wrong-doing. Or, which could lead someone with a little prior knowledge to piece it all together. It sounds like an easy thing to do, but it isn’t.

It should go without saying that it is just as important to produce a good quality manuscript, even if your name does not grace the cover. If you want people to read, enjoy and recommend your book, all the same rules apply here too.

When it comes to choosing what to put on the cover, there are two options. You can be straight ‘Anonymous’ or can choose a pen name. In the case of the latter, I would recommend studying other author’s names for inspiration and then picking one that is original, memorable and easy to spell. Make sure that the name suits your target audience. If you are writing for 50-something women, choose a name that resonates with them. A good tip is to Google, say, top baby names of 1968.

Anonymous authors should try to think ahead and consider what would happen if the book turned into a bestseller. There are not many authors that don’t enjoy credit and praise, so it can be a tough gig to stay silent. Similarly, what would happen if they are outed? How much of a disaster would that be? If anyone wants to get to the truth badly enough, it is always possible to do so. Publishing a book anonymously is not something to be taken lightly. It is not a 100% fool-proof way of staying in the shadows. The only way to ensure complete anonymity when it comes to publishing a book is to take up a career as a ghostwriter.